Control out of the vacuum, virtually
Certain X-ray optical properties of metal atoms can be controlled with the help of virtual photons. This has been demonstrated for the first time by a DESY research team at PETRA III, by using the highly brilliant radiation from this X-ray light source at DESY. In the journal Physical Review Letters they report on how the X-ray spectra of metal atoms can be controlled by virtual photons. This opens up new possibilities for specifically modifying the X-ray optical properties of materials.
So-called virtual photons play an important role in the interaction of light and matter. This is quite remarkable because they do not exist in the classical sense. Virtual photons are created in the vacuum out of nothing and then disappear again after an extremely short time. If these photons interact during their short existence with the electrons of an atom, the binding energies of the electrons shift ever so slightly.
Image: Experimental setup to measure the collective Lamb shift at tantalum.
Credit: DESY, Haber et al.